January Book of the Month: A Collection of Drawings by Black Hawk

spirit beings and sun dancers

Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers: Black Hawk’s Vision of the Lakota World
by Janet Catherine Berlo

I spotted this book in our Travel and Cultures section and thought it so very cool that I wanted to share it with you all. It might seem like a bit of a cheat, but I felt the book’s dust flap summary to be so comprehensive and compelling, that I chose to simply transcribe it for you here 🙂


“One of the finest examples of Native American pictorial art, Black Hawk’s drawing book is published here and in full color for the first time. Having recently emerged from obscurity (the book appeared for auction in 1994 after being abandoned for decades in a file cabinet), these seventy-six vivid drawings now stand as the most complete visual record of Lakota art of the early Reservation period (1875-95).

A Lakota artist and medicine man living on South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, Black Hawk completed these pencil and ink drawings during the winter of 1880-81. The drawings were commissioned by William Edward Caton, the trader at the Cheyenne River Agency, who paid Black Hawk fifty cents for each drawing and later gathered them together in a handsome leather-bound volume. The drawings depict a wide-range of subjects ranging from ceremonial activities, personal visions, warfare, and historic events, to scenes of daily life, nature studies, and hunting. Some of Black Hawk’s illustrations are the only known drawings of ceremonies described in ethnographic works such as Black Elk Speaks, the famous account of visions experienced by Lakota man Black Elk.

Drawing on ethnographic accounts and her discussions with Lakota interviewees and scholars, Janet Berlo’s comprehensive and insightful text presents a fully rounded picture of the cultural background from which Black Hawk’s drawings emerged. her analysis of Black Hawk’s extraordinary images examines their potent iconography and stylistic elements, and places them within the Lakota tradition. A brief history of the Lakota is also provided, describing what is known of their early origins, of Black Hawk’s time, and of their trajectory into the twentieth century.

An invaluable contribution to our knowledge of Native American history and art, Black Hawk’s drawing book is a window on a fascinating and eloquent world.”


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